AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
MAGICAL IMAGE SLICES
by Harlan Kennedy
"I don't like the film business. I don't like the British film business. I don't like the American film business, I don't like the French, German … I don't like the film business. I like filming. I'm a filmmaker."
Nicolas Roeg talks in the same style that he makes films – with a restless, fragmented, quicksilver passion. There is no straight line of thought in his talk or in his work, rather a magnetic field in which bits and pieces fly around a firm center. He won't pinpoint the center for you. You have to find it yourself.
"I believe film is an art," Roeg says. "I believe it, I truly believe that. Thought can be transferred by the juxtaposition of images, and you mustn't be afraid of the audience not understanding. You can say things visually, immediately, and that's where film, I believe, is going. It's not a pictorial example of a published work, it's transference of thought."
Roeg's new film, Bad Timing, is in postproduction at Pinewood Studios in England. Produced by Jeremy Thomas, set in Vienna, and based on an original script by Yale Udoff, Bad Timing tells of the stormy love affair between an American psychoanalyst (Art Garfunkel) and a passionate American woman (Theresa Russell). The affair climaxes with a mystery-shrouded suicide attempt by the woman and the arrival of Harvey Keitel as a police officer charged with tidying up the case's loose ends.
Loose ends are what nonconverts to Roeg's special branch of cinema might think the director delights in creating rather than tidying up. Ever since Performance burst upon an unsuspecting world back in 1970, after a long sojourn on the shelf, Roeg has been turning narrative conventions inside out and giving trompe l'oeil expression to Godard's famous dictum: "A film must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order." Walkabout was a visionary, time-chopping pilgrimage through the Australian bush; Don't Look Now took Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland to hallucinogenic Venice; and in The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie came from outer space to dwell among the mirages of Western civilization.
At Pinewood Studios outside London, Roeg put down his editing scissors for an afternoon recently to show me his new film and to talk about his work. A genially disheveled figure with a crinkled smile, he has a passing likeness to the veteran British actor Denholm Elliot (who plays a supporting role in Bad Timing), and he speaks with the same kind of weather-beaten but urgent middle-crust accent. After meeting in the commissary, Roeg and I walked across the studio grounds to his office. Inside, Roeg unbuttoned his duffel coat, unfurled his scarf, and settled into a black leather "analysis" couch in a proprietorial sprawl. "I'll confess all," he announced.
Roeg's antipathy toward the film business stems from a long exasperation with the unimaginativeness of commercial movie production and the aesthetic spoon-feeding of moviegoers.
"Young people are only just beginning to read film – they know the grammar," says Roeg, his voice characteristically stressing the key words as he speaks. "They come from a visual generation, and film is a visual medium. But pretty well everyone over the age of twenty-five, I guess, maybe twenty-eight, is rooted in the literary tradition. I've always wanted to get my thoughts over in film visually, without the intermediary of literature. I actively prefer to be in the cinema, but not the cinema of literature, which is like Victorian picture books. Faced with that, I'd rather stay at home and read.
"Before the whole Gutenberg galaxy thing, storytelling was more intimate, more immediate – like film. Printing confined a story within a binding and imposed artificial limits. It made stories into lengths. But before that, in the oral tradition, stories could continue forever. It's one of the basic concepts of living that stories are one great story of which all stories partake."
"When I was in India," Roeg continues, "I watched storytellers on the street corner. They used a very different form from that postulated by the printed page. Although I couldn't understand a word, I was fascinated! The storyteller would entice his audience, first putting a hand in his pocket and then gradually taking out a packet of matches, then a candle, then a knife, and an old flower. And he talked, gradually telling a story of death – some old extraordinary raja, you know. And then the story would develop in his, and out of his, own personality – and that was the storyteller's life and world."
It's also the life and world of Roeg's cinema. Roeg pulls images out of his pocket in apparently random order, and gradually the bits and pieces build into a pattern, forge a meaning, cast a fascination. "I create images and tell stories on film," Roeg says, "and if you're dealing with thought on film, then I think it's cheating to use literary means. I want people to read the images in my films."
Roeg's formative years in the cinema were spent making images as a lighting cameraman. He photographed François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, Richard Lester's Petulia, and John Schlesinger's Far From the Madding Crowd. Petulia was the first inkling of revelations-to-come from Roeg. Lester and he clearly found themselves on the same thought wave, and between them fashioned Petulia into an offbeat masterpiece of kaleidoscopic narrative. (The film has lately jumped into many critics' lists of the ten best American films of the sixties.)
Then came Performance, which Roeg codirected with Donald Cammell. Or rather, at first it didn't come. Despite the box-office lure of Mick Jagger and a plot that intermingled music, drugs, and sex; the film was left to gather dust on Warner Bros.' shelf. The studio no doubt was baffled by the movie's labyrinthine structure and heady invocations of Jorges Luis Borges. Roeg shakes his head in rueful remembrance of his directing baptism.
"It was a rather lonely time," he recalls. "I'd been a cameraman for a long time – well, not so long, but a time – and I had to reassess what future involvement I'd actually want to have with film. Performance was not even allowed to be shown, so there was no use talking about it; one just had to keep silent. I say this not with any bitterness but just with hindsight; the 'businessmen' thought that someone who apparently should know all the techniques had failed at being able to apply them. My agent told me that I might even be sued for unprofessionalism. There are certain clauses in a director's contract about 'up to professional standard' and so on. And to them it wasn't.
"But after what I'd done, I thought, can people really imagine that someone who's spent so much time in film doesn't know what foot he's putting forward? That he can't feel pride? I even had offers from people who said, 'I can help you out if you're in trouble' and 'It's difficult the first time.' That whole complacent attitude. "
Performance was finally dusted off, shown in theaters, and instantly rocketed Roeg's name to the top of the promising new directors list. Walkabout, Don't Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth followed swiftly to substantiate that promise.
From Roeg's office we walked to his editing room and drew up two stools before a Steenbeck editing machine. Against the wall neatly filed cans were ranged on shelves, all bearing the legend Bad Timing. Some contained reels of celluloid, others the matching sound tapes. Taking them down two by two, Roeg placed them on the Steenbeck, which spun the reels simultaneously, providing synchronized sound and picture.
Bad Timing takes Roeg's visual sleight of hand and jigsaw crosscutting to a new peak of ingenuity and associative meaning. The plot, like that of Don't Look Now, has a tinge of the pulp-fictional, but the point of Roeg's work – and its glory – is that there is nothing simple about even simple plots.
"The ground that makes me nervous in Bad Timing," says Roeg, "the thought that makes me tremble, is that I don't want to see in this love affair that sentimental middle area that I think we all know. It's a real, very painful love affair. When one's in love, the moments of lyrical love are to me implicit in people's behavior. It's actually something in that other, public manner that makes you understand that they have those moments of lyrical love.
"I remember when I'd finished Don't Look Now, I was cutting it and looking at it. There's a love scene between Julie and Donald – it's only an interlude – and I wanted to see what I was doing with that scene, whether the intention was right. So I tried taking it out. Now, in that film the emphasis is on a state of mind; things aren't necessarily what they seem in life. Without that love scene, you never see them get happy together; they're always rowing, Julie's always grumbling and running beside this tall chap saying, 'You don't understand.' They seem so miserable all the time! But most people do seem miserable: Love is a very miserable affair. And when I put that scene back in, suddenly you can't get confused about them. They're like a married couple. They are a proper married couple. They don't get up and open doors, they don't have candlelight dinners, but – in that scene after they've made love – he washes his toothbrush in her bathwater, she brushes up against him, he touches her. It makes you safe that they're happy, or, anyway, that they're real."
You're not safe that they're happy in Bad Timing, but you're certainly safe that they're real. A romance that starts as a piquant meeting of opposites – Garfunkel the cool rationalist preaching the certainties of marriage, Russell the hedonist prizing the moment and postponing the permanent – gradually spirals into a total war of personalities.
A corresponding sense of pressure-leading-to-fracture informs Roeg's visuals. At first it looks in Bad Timing as if Roeg has gone for baroque, or, more accurately, for art nouveau. A Gustav Klimt portrait of a woman, her softly outlined head emerging from a razzle – dazzle mosaic representing the sitter's dress, looms over the art gallery interior where Garfunkel and Russell meet. And it's not the film's last nod to that fin de siècle Austrian artist. Klimt was a painter who broke up the classical contours of oil painting into rainbow – hued fragments. In much the same way, Roeg has splintered and rearranged the linearity of orthodox movie storytelling.
If Klimt is a taking – off point for the film's style, the paintings of his pupil Egon Schiele add force and meaning to its content. Schiele's swirling expressionist couples, bound in a morbid frenzy of lovemaking, were an offspring of art nouveau, and it is no accident that Schiele's work is constantly glimpsed in the background of Roeg's Vienna-set meditation on love and death.
The film's eye-blink editing and sudden juxtapositions create a running concatenation between Eros and Thanatos: Scenes of lovemaking between Garfunkel and Russell cut (in flash-forward) to scenes of Russell lying on the hospital operating table after her suicide attempt. And throughout the movie, structure is dictated less by the demands of linear chronology than by the polar attraction of opposite themes.
Furthermore, where Garfunkel and Russell are set against each other in the film, Garfunkel and Keitel – two observer-investigators – grow mysteriously together during the film as hero and doppelgänger, ghostly comrades. "One of the basic ideas of the film," says Roeg, "is observing, spying. In the scene where he lectures a university class, Garfunkel talks about the voyeur impulse. And he himself, an analyst, is a spy of sorts. Everybody watches everybody. That's what we all do – not least film audiences. There's a voyeuristic appetite for detachment, for the vicarious, that's a key part of people's personalities. "
Roeg adds, "Keitel and Garfunkel in the film are really aspects of the same character. Keitel's a kind of alter ego. They're both watchers and analysts – men who want everything to be tidy, obedient, pliant to their wills."
This theme of moral manipulation runs right through Bad Timing. Allied to the film's recurring voyeur motif and to Roeg's use of erotic angles in the love scenes – the camera shooting over thighs or between legs – it virtually invites us to see an analogy with cinema itself, and perhaps with Roeg's own cinema in particular. More than any living director, Roeg makes an audience feel that his film is not so much taking place on a flat screen, in finite space and time, as exploding multidimensionally around them.
Roeg pursues this multidimensionalism right from the beginning of his planning on a film. I asked him if he story-boarded or meticulously prepared his films. He replied, "No, no, no, no. Not meticulously in that way. I like to get who the people are safely in my head, what their problems or their happiness or their sadness is from. After that, I like to keep a certain plasticity about them. Otherwise, they're no longer living. I like to keep them living right up to the time the print comes out of the lab."
One element shared by three of Roeg's five features to date is the use of a singer in the lead male role. Jagger starred in Performance, Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Garfunkel now in Bad Timing. Again Roeg attributes this preference to an urge to wean his films away from the set-patterned and the formulaic.
"What I find interesting about singers," Roeg says, "is that they have all the qualities of performers but they're untouched in terms of acting. They're not from the New York school of this or that; they're not from the London theater. There are great, great actors, of course, but they seem to 'die' tragically, because of quick lionization. And I've seen it happen. I've seen them dive into sort of boxes of acting manner. They have their gimmicks. They become so concrete it's impossible.
"I've talked to one or two quite famous actors about parts in my films. And as they've gradually seen what I want to do, they've thought – I've seen it happen in their eyes – they've thought, This will change my image, what I'm selling."
Roeg continues, "So many actors have lost their intent, their beginnings. They're not this traveling group of players that one evening is a king, another evening is a beggar. What I love about the other actors – the nonactors, the singers – is that they don't know who they are yet. And actors shouldn't know. I worked once with Peter Finch, an old friend. I knew Peter for years and years, ever since he came to England. He kept that traveling player quality, curiously enough. He played Oscar Wilde-totally cast against type. He didn't care about it; he was just 'becoming' the part. He was an 'actor chappie.' Others become – well – really sort of businessmen."
One device Roeg uses in his films to bring his characters to life is to disorient them, to pluck them away from their roots. We see underworld thug James Fox adrift in the sybaritic, mazelike luxury of Mick Jagger's apartment in Performance; English girl Jenny Agutter wandering the Australian bush in Walkabout; and in Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth, the English couple abroad and the extraterrestrial being on earth.
"I do like to set people against an unfamiliar background," Roeg admits. "I think the background can be used tremendously by the actor. It makes him stand out. I don't want the characters to meld with their environment. In an unfamiliar place they can't help relating differently, until all their sharpened concentration goes on their own problem, which is the story.
"In a strange place you have to keep rechecking reality. It's not quite the same. I remember on Walkabout we had a scene – it was a marvelous scene, Edward Bond, the scriptwriter, thought it up – where the little boy gets to the top of the hill and looks out over the bush and says, 'There's the sea. It is the sea, isn't it?' And just at that moment all the excitement and all the doubts gather together. 'It is the sea, isn't it?' Marvelous! That's worth a whole goddamned script to me."
Roeg links this motif of insecurity to his own childhood and to another manifestation of oral culture. "I don't know if it happens in all families," he says, "but it happened in mine. My father would tell a story to my sister and me. We'd heard it before, but that didn't matter because it became a family sort of thing. We'd enjoy listening to it again, but every detail had to be correct. When I would tell the same story, my sister would say, 'No, no. You've missed out the bit about. . . . ' And whoever told it had to tell it correctly, and in that way it became a family story.
"In Walkabout, in the scene where the little boy is telling the story, Jenny says, 'No, you missed out the . . ,' and then she says to her brother, 'I don't know why you're telling this, he [the aborigine] doesn't understand.' The two cultures are separate. The family story is suddenly out of its element."
That kind of disorientation is the philosopher's stone of Roeg's work. It turns the base metal of a simple story into something unrecognizably richer and more many-faceted. In great part it is Roeg's editing that creates that sense of shifting planes and myriad angles. He intercuts past, present, and future into an all-encompassing now. In Bad Timing split-second flash-forward shots of Keitel's police inspector visiting the scenes of the story – Russell's apartment, Garfunkel's car – are spliced into the present tense of the story itself. The effect is to show that human experience is never shackled to the merely chronological or geographic. Different times, different places intersect in human thought, and it is that existential mobility that is the impulse behind Roeg's work.
Roeg's most bizarre and extreme essay in disorientation was The Man Who Fell to Earth. Critical reaction rallied to the consensus that the director had simply taken a good, linear sci-fi novel (by Walter Tevis) and "done a Roeg" on it. But in time the film could well be recognized as a Roeg masterpiece. His crazy-quilt editing is here put to the service of a plot in which orthodox concepts of time and space are constantly, deliberately upended. Bowie's enamel-faced alien is a "friendly" visitor from outer space (Roeg beat Spielberg to putting that notion on film) whose unaging appearance is contrasted with the diversely aging – that is, diversely corrupt or disillusioned – human characters.
"I'm fascinated," says Roeg, "by the interchange between aging and time. People age at different speeds. Bowie didn't age at all. Perhaps aging begins when people betray themselves in one way or another, when they start living by other people's lights."
Although The Man Who Fell to Earth had a rough ride commercially and critically, it led to one movie offer that kept Roeg busy, and filmgoers expectant, for over a year – Flash Gordon.
"I love the Flash Gordon books," Roeg says. "When Dino De Laurentiis first asked me to do the movie, it was a little time after The Man Who Fell to Earth. In film, once you've got something out of you, you feel a bit empty. So I said, 'Well, I don't know, I must think about this.' And so I got all the books together. And I gradually came to the conclusion that Alex Raymond, who wrote them, was a genius, an absolute genius. It took me a long time, but suddenly I tore into what I felt he was doing! It was extraordinary, and I became so excited at the idea that I said to Dino, 'Look, I'll go away and write. I think I know what I'd like to do with it.'
"Well, it took me a year, almost exactly a year, till I'd got it down how I wanted to make Flash Gordon. And I nipped back and said to Dino, 'Look, this is it. It's ready.' And he looked at it and said, "I don't want to make that picture. Please stay and I'll tell you the picture I want to make."'
Roeg pauses, then says, "End of project! I just couldn't take it on, because I thought to myself, Well, even if I'm well, well below average intelligence and I've taken a year to get it, and then I learn that I could have done it in two days, that'll give me a complex I'll live with for the rest of my life! But anyway, then Dino told me what he wanted to do. It seemed all right, but I think I'll stick with mine!"
Much to the perplexity of the film business, Roeg has been sticking to his own ideas for a decade now, through lean years and in-between years, and in the face of a fascinated but not always adulatory (or understanding) public. For filmgoers hostile to his work, the name Nicolas Roeg is synonymous with an exasperating habit of turning plain and honest stories into cinematic labyrinths. For Roeg's admirers, his movies represent a cinema where thought and feeling are transmitted by the immediate impact of the image, and where separate threads of time and space are magically interwoven in the cutting room. Roeg's work may be the shape of cinema to come, and Bad Timing his latest hypnotic stride into the future.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JAN-FEB 1980 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.